Marijuana can be relaxing and physically sedating, but also invigorating and creatively uplifting. So is marijuana a stimulant or depressant?
Marijuana has been used by humans for centuries for a plethora of reasons. But after all these years, many people are still unsure what marijuana actually is.
Most people understand that sleeping pills and sedatives, like Xanax and Valium, are depressants, whereas caffeine and cocaine are stimulants. However, marijuana has the characteristics of both, and its effects vary considerably from person to person. So, is marijuana a stimulant or depressant? Or is it something else entirely, like a hallucinogen?
Before we answer these questions, let’s take a close look at how we categorize psychoactive drugs.
How are drugs categorized?
Psychoactive drugs can be placed into three main categories based on their effects:
- Depressants: slow down the central nervous system and make you feel relaxed, calm, and less inhibited.
- Stimulants: speed up the central nervous system and increase your energy, mood, and focus.
- Hallucinogens: disrupt the central nervous system, altering your senses and perception of reality.
So, where does marijuana fall amongst these?
Surprisingly, marijuana fits into all three—meaning it can be classed as a depressant, stimulant, and hallucinogen. To make things more complicated, it’s also being called an analgesic, anti-nausea, and anticonvulsant thanks to its medicinal properties.
While this may seem counter-intuitive, it’s important to understand that marijuana is derived from Cannabis sativa, a highly complex plant. It contains over 500 naturally-occurring chemical compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids–all of which influence its effects.
For example, some marijuana strains are more likely to act as a stimulant, causing a euphoric high, while others may promote feelings more typical of a depressant, such as sleepiness and relaxation. The effects of each strain depend largely on the plant’s cannabinoid profile.
How is marijuana a depressant?
Marijuana is considered a depressant as it slows messages between the brain and the body. When weed enters your system, it gradually increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels on the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that blocks brain signals and ultimately decreases activity throughout your central nervous system.
As a result, marijuana slows down breathing and promotes feelings of relaxation and drowsiness—effects that are common to all depressants. Due to calming properties, marijuana may help to manage conditions like anxiety, insomnia, and muscle spasms.
However, as a depressant, marijuana can also have the following adverse effects:
- Slurred speed
- Blurred vision
- Impaired coordination
- Low blood pressure
- Short-term memory problems
At high doses, depressants can cause cardiac arrest and death, particularly in people with pre-existing heart conditions. However, marijuana has a low toxicity rating, and fatalities are very rare.
Examples of other depressants include alcohol, benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium and Xanax), ketamine, barbiturates and opioids (e.g. heroin and morphine).
With prolonged or frequent use, it’s possible to develop a tolerance to depressants, meaning you need a higher dose to feel the same effects. There’s also a high risk of addiction and dependency with certain depressants, particularly opioids and barbiturates.
You can also become dependent on marijuana for certain things (such as socializing or sleep) and experience withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and diminished appetite.
How is marijuana a stimulant?
Stimulants are drugs that speed up messages between the brain and body, in particular the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. As a result, these drugs can increase mood, attention, and focus.
Essentially, stimulants do the exact opposite of depressants; they speed up activity within the central nervous system, increasing your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate, in addition to giving you a burst of energy.
Stimulants can also have adverse, and highly dangerous, side effects, including:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Heart failure
Marijuana is sometimes considered a stimulant as it can produce an euphoric high, which experts believe is related to its effect on the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Examples of other stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines (speed and ice), methamphetamine (ecstasy), and cocaine.
Marijuana carried fewer risks than other stimulants, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, which are highly addictive drugs. Although, as a stimulant, marijuana still poses a risk of dependency on its mood-enhancing effects.
How is marijuana a hallucinogen?
Hallucinogens, also known as psychedelics, are a class of drugs that powerfully distort a person’s perception of reality. Someone under the influence of a psychedelic may see, feel and hear things that are real, or have a heightened sensory perception of what’s going on around them, such as noticing colors more vividly or being more sensitive to touch.
Research shows that hallucinogens temporarily disrupt the messages between the brain and body; in particular, they interfere with the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
Marijuana has historically been stereotyped for its hallucinogenic effects. However, hallucinations rarely occur in most users, and typically only result from strains with high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. Examples of other hallucinogens include ketamine, LSD, PCP, and magic mushrooms.
In addition to hallucinations, hallucinogens can cause:
- Lack of motor coordination
- Altered sense of time or space
- Increased heart rate
- Panic or Paranoia
- Detachment from self or environment
Hallucinogens are generally considered safe and don’t produce dependence or addiction. However, long term use has been linked with memory loss, anxiety, and depression. In rare cases, hallucinogens have left people with psychosis, flashbacks, or a condition now medically recognized as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.
How should you classify marijuana?
Consumers may find it more helpful to consider the variables that could cause a cannabis strain to act as a depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogen. The effects of marijuana are the result of three interacting variables:
- The drug: the unique cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid profile of the strain, the dosage, and method of administration all play a major role in how a person reacts to cannabis. For example, the ratio of THC to CBD will influence the ‘high’ of any given strain.
- The individual user: physiological factors, such as gender, age, and history of marijuana use will change how marijuana affects each person. For example, a first-time user will be more sensitive to THC than someone who has built up a tolerance through long-term use over time. Also, individuals who carry specific genes are more susceptible to marijuana-induced psychosis (e.g. hallucinations and delusions).
- The environment: your reaction to any given strain of marijuana is influenced by the environment. For example, the effects of any given strain can be different if taken alone at home as opposed to with strangers at a wild party.
Marijuana has the characteristics of both a stimulant and depressant, but also a hallucinogen. It may enhance your mood, promote relaxation, and increase your sensory perception. But it can also cause unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects, which are common to all three types of drugs.
The bottom line is that marijuana affects each person differently, depending on a variety of factors, some of which are out of your control.
Anyone concerned about their marijuana use can speak with a doctor about support and options available.